Full disclosure: I first met Josh Barkan at Harvard University. I’d recently retired from medical practice in the Smoky Mountain foothills of Appalachia. My educational background was in medicine and the sciences, yet I had always had an abiding love of language and literature, so took a number of graduate humanities courses. Professor Barkan, little more than a third of my age, was a gifted and respected teacher. He proved to be urbane, witty, and unassumedly very bright. He proved to be the stellar persona in my Harvard humanities education project; a writer who could also teach. I read his short fiction collection, Before Hiroshima: The Confession of Murayama Kazuo and Other Stories shortly after it published in 2000. The finely detailed and provocative titular story, a novella, involved Japanese soldier Murayama Kazuo who is obsessed with survivor’s guilt after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. I consider the novella to be one of the finer pieces of short fiction I’ve read.
Blind Speed: A Novel
TriQuarterly Books of Northwestern University Press
Hardcover, 304 pages
John R. Guthrie is a former Marine infantry rifleman. He then garnered a formal education to include medical school and became the commanding officer of a U.S. Navy Reserve Shock Surgical Group before going into private practice in the Smoky Mountain foothills of Appalachia. He is the editor and publisher of the monthly webzine The Chickasaw Plum: Politics and the Arts Online. (Link)
No one should be allowed to read Josh Barkan’s Blind Speed: A Novel unless they are certified as having a mordant and somewhat raucous sense of humor. Feckless protagonist Paul Berger, a failed musician, was born “a little bit ugly.” Like Al Capp’s character Joe BTZFLK, who had his own personal storm cloud that traveled with him, Paul was born to lose. In Paul’s case, the storm cloud is represented by an ominous prophecy concerning his life and fortune as foretold by an Iowa guru named Buffalo Man. Early on Paul is a drummer in a nearly successful rock band. Though he loved the drums, he eventually gives up on music, believing that “love is not enough…the notes came out only as good, not perfect.”
One of the conflicts that drive the narrative to its satisfying conclusion is the rivalry between Paul and his two alpha male brothers. Andrew was an astronaut who died on September 11, ‘01 in the attack on the Pentagon. Cyrus is a Harvard trained lawyer of boundless ambition and the ruthlessness of a cobra.
Paul, suffering from writers block for over six years, is unable to finish the novel on which he has written a mere 45 pages. Because of his failure to publish the novel or even a brief journal article, he is one the verge of losing his job as an instructor in a community college when the tenure committee meets. He is told by the department chairman, Kominski, that he must publish something in the next two months to be considered for continued employment. In a fit of self-abnegation as he left Kominski’s office, he characterizes himself as an “idiot,” a nincompoop, and worse. His mindset is permeated by such a sense of failure and lostness that he brings to mind Norwegian Expressionist Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”
In his chronic despair, he makes the following observation at a “BATTLE REENACTMENT OF THE SHOT HEARD ROUND THE WORLD” in Concord Massachusetts:
Nixon, that goofy Vietnam War mortician was right: the silent majority ruled (not the
rebellious, pacifist fringe); the majority killed for their property; and there was nothing
really revolutionary about the Minutemen, who won a war and took over an entire country
to build fast-food restaurants and Disneyland while abolitionists, pacifists, hippies, and
environmentalists were left to make well-intended flatulent noises—write poems such as
Ginsberg’s “Howl”—in books for other defeated noisemakers.
Paul’s angst is not simply directed at politicos of one persuasion; Hillary Clinton come for her share of vituperation later; “liberals like the...porker Hillary Clinton, who was just a fascist commie pig….” He inveighs against whoever and whatever is at hand; hippies, his attorney brother. The world, in short, is too much with him.
Paul’s fiancée Zoe was shot at the Concord reenactment when a reenactment soldier accidentally left the ramrod in the barrel of his musket. This episode is further complicated by the appearance of Paul’s pompous super-achiever brother, Cyrus, who is running for congress.
One nearly finds redemption for Paul at the moment of his wedding to Zoe. “He hadn’t expected to see her so much more beautiful than he usually regarded her…he felt, perhaps for the first time, beautiful himself as he stood next to her.” His wedding to Zoe, however, like much else in Paul’s life, it took a decidedly atypical and unpleasant turn even before the ceremony was over. Then it got worse.
The novel includes pitch perfect descriptions of Boston area neighborhoods: “He wandered first through the Chinatown gate, gilded with yellow paint that was supposed to look like gold and bring good fortune to every poor Joe who passed between the concrete pillars, and then into the herbal medicine store, and then into the store where he was offered but declined a massage….”
Blind Speed in nonlinear in that the author deftly uses a series of flashbacks to flesh out the story. It is metafictional, reminiscent at times of the work of John Barth of Giles Goat Boy and The Sot Weed Factor fame. There is a fine balance between word play and postmodern self-consciousness and the page turner characteristics of more traditional genres. One finds, for instance the insertion of expository material along the way. In the “Coda” following chapter 3, author departs from the fictive narrative as follows:
Two other things I found while researching this chapter: The limestone of the Pentagon
all comes from the same quarry in Ellettsville, Indiana. I thought it might be made of
granite, but it’s not. After 9/11, they used the same quarry for reconstruction, with 2.7
million pounds of variegated clear limestone, 18,000 square feet cut into seven hundred
pieces transported on forty-eight flatbed trucks….
Paul’s saga continues, his life lurching from one disaster to another, yet taking a surprising turn when he must deal with “ecoterrorists” and his brother’s vaulting ambition.
The narrative of Blind Speed is at times piercingly satirical, but the author builds in the ironies and insights that make it all worthwhile. And in the denouement, the reader is left with the belief that Paul found grace and redemption in an unexpected and appealing way; a way, in short, to be in this world.
A rising star among writers, Barkan was awarded a fellowship in literature by the National Endowment for the Arts in literature in 2006. He has taught writing courses and New York University and Boston University as well as Harvard. He is a resident of New York City, and is a graduate of Yale University and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.